HAMDEN >> Techno music blares from speakers inside the TD Bank Sports Center weight room, where 10 Quinnipiac men’s hockey players are laying in an odd position: their heads resting atop large exercise balls, feet planted firmly on the ground.
Brijesh Patel, the school’s first full-time strength and conditioning coach, explains the exercise. Within seconds, everyone is dropping their hips to within an inch of the floor, then thrusting upward.
If there’s any urge to crack jokes about these rhythmic movements, the players resist. This is only the beginning of a long workout. Patel has lots more in store over the next two hours. There’ll be cardiovascular drills, weight lifting and outdoor sprints up York Hill in the scorching July heat.
“Summer is the most important time to prepare,” Patel says. “They can dedicate more energy toward developing their bodies so they can handle the season. The whole goal of summertime workouts is to build their tolerance to stress so when it comes time for the season, they can recover from six days a week. We push them hard in the summer.”
Chase Priskie, who spent the previous week at the Washington Capitals developmental camp, is a prime example of those benefits.
He’d been passed over twice before in the NHL Entry draft before arriving at Quinnipiac last May to enroll in summer classes and begin Patel’s summer training regimen. When the season started in October, he quickly established himself as one of the top freshmen defensemen in the country. The Caps selected him in the sixth round of last month’s draft.
Weight room work with Patel, Priskie says, was instrumental to a breakout season. Several personally-inscribed, framed photographs of pro hockey players on the walls of Patel’s office echo a similar sentiment.
“He’s the best,” says Quinnipiac co-captain Derek Smith. “And he’ll get the best out of you every time.”
Twenty years ago Patel was an overweight teenage athlete at Danbury’s Immaculate High, packing 250 pounds on his 5-foot-7 inch frame. He played offensive guard on the freshman football team, but struggled badly with conditioning drills, usually finishing last if he finished at all.
A life-altering event came that winter when he was cut from the freshman basketball team. Patel, determined to get himself in shape, started running and starving himself. He dropped 90 pounds in six months, though he soon realized it wasn’t a healthy way to lose weight.
Still, his interest in conditioning peaked. He devoured books about health and fitness, and decided to pursue a career as a strength and conditioning coach, though his parents were skeptical at first.
“In typical Indian families, you’re either a doctor or pharmacist or own a shop, something like that,” Patel said. “They were more concerned if I could make a living. I said I’ll figure it out and make it work.”
Within weeks of enrolling at UConn, Patel had lined up an internship in the school’s athletic department studying under Jerry Martin, a renowned and innovative strength and conditioning coach. As a junior, he got his intro to hockey, securing an internship with respected strength coach Mike Boyle. He also had another internship at Holy Cross.
Patel made such an impression on Martin that when a staff position opened to be lead strength coach for UConn’s baseball and track programs, it was given to Patel despite the fact that he was still an undergraduate and taking classes with many of the athletes he would be training.
As the first full-time strength coach at Quinnipiac, Patel, hired in 2008, was eager to implement a year-round conditioning program worthy of the school’s burgeoning hockey and basketball programs.
First, he needed to alter the laidback attitude toward training. That extended to everyone using the team weight room.
One morning, shortly after Patel was hired, hockey alums Reid Cashman and Jamie Bates showed up to use the weight room. Cashman was a three-time All-American, the most decorated player in school history, and about to begin his second year of pro hockey. He made the mistake of entering the facility wearing a baseball cap and chewing a stick of gum.
“I introduced myself to B, who I hadn’t met yet,” Cashman said. “He said hello, and then let us know the new rules of the gym awfully quick. He told me if I wanted to work out I had to get rid of the hat and the gum.”
In Cashman’s time, Quinnipiac athletes had limited work with a part-time strength coach. Mandatory work outs for the hockey team were twice a week, at 5:30 a.m., in the gym on the school’s main campus.
“The mindset back then was let’s just get through the workout and get out of there so we could get on with the rest of our day,” said Cashman, now an assistant to Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “Now, and it’s all because of what B’s established, guys are chomping at the bit to work out so they can get better. They’re excited to be in the weight room. If B left for a week, I know our guys would still be in there every day. He’s created a culture where they all strive to be better.”
That culture emphasizes reducing injury risk, increasing athleticism and health education. Four years ago Patel authored cookbook tailored toward the young college athlete, outlining everything from how to purchase a spatula to an extensive list of simple, cost-efficient recipes. It’s now distributed annually to all incoming freshmen athletes.
In the early years there was some resistance to Patel, mostly from older players unwilling or incredulous to the extensive, relatively grueling program. They’d worked out on their own and never been pushed or be forced to answer to anyone before.
Those days are long gone. Nowadays, recruits intent on reaching the NHL understand the ample payoff of getting a jump on training five days a week, two hours a day.
Greenwich’s Nick Jermain is one of a handful of incoming hockey recruits who arrived on campus in late May. He’d worked with various trainers the past few years but, like most freshmen at Quinnipiac, received culture shock when starting Patel’s program.
“The first work out I was tired after the warm-up,” Jermain said. “We had another two hours or so left. I went home and passed out. But I’ve learned so much. It would’ve been tough to start in September, learning all the tempos and breathing and how intense it really is.”
And that’s the key. Players have committed to their work outs, seen results on the ice, and preached the benefits of hard work to every incoming recruiting class.
“Rand says it all the time, when they buy into the system, they’ll be rewarded,” Patel says. “It’s the same thing we do in here. When they do the things we ask on a regular basis, at the level we want, they’ll be great. The coolest thing for me is to see that development.”